One Saturday morning in June, Eduardo’s parents dropped him off at our house to spend the day while all the adults went fishing. We played in the pool for an hour, until Eduardo hurt himself trying to flip into the water, something Manny and I did with practiced ease. His enormous head cracked against the edge of the stone pool deck with a dull sound, and a moment later his blood bloomed red in the water, unfurling lazily, a tentacled thing. I had to help him out of the pool, dragging him first to the shallow end where we had earlier collected drowning red and black ladybugs, to set them back on the tall bamboo that shaded that end of the pool. Afterwards he told the nanny, through heart wrenching sobbing, that my brother and I had made him try the flip, that we were trying to kill him. This was patently untrue: I had dared him to do it.
“Elsa and Manny love to joke, but they always go too far,” Nanny said, casting a disapproving eye at us. She was placing a gigantic bandage over Eduardo’s cut. Manny and I were bursting with the unfairness of it all. It had been Eduardo’s own choice to try the flip, and besides, if something ever went wrong the last thing you were supposed to do was snitch to an adult.
We should have known Eduardo would be the type to tattle. He was a hyperactive, annoying child with a tendency to boss us around, although at 8 he was younger than me by a year and had been held back in school. Sandy blonde and small for his age, he looked nothing like us. He was the son of our father’s cousin, which made him something or other of ours. My father and his father had been close as children, and had reconnected after discovering they’d bought houses near each other in the resort town of La Romana, where we spent weekends.
When Eduardo finally stopped crying, we had lunch: tuna-fish sandwiches and plantain chips. Eduardo said he liked neither and ate more than his fair share of the chips. He alone got ice cream, because my brother and I were being punished. He got chatty again, and he said we should all go to the beach after Nanny had her nap. Nanny would walk us, so we wouldn’t get kidnapped, he said.
“She never walks us,” I said to him.
“Well, I’m not allowed to go alone,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, “Because of the men who like children.” He paused dramatically. “And then,” he resumed in his normal voice, “we can go snorkeling and build a sand fort, and play at war.”
“There’s two of us,” I said, “so it wouldn’t be fair.”
“You’re the knights, and I’m the king. We’re all on the same side,” Eduardo said.
“Why do you get to be king?” my brother asked.
“Look at this,” Eduardo said, jiggling his wrist in our faces, “this is my watch my father got me. It’s waterproof.”
“So?” I asked.
“It’s waterproof and sandproof and sunproof. You don’t even know what time it is, so I’m the king.”
I looked over at Manny and he had a sly little smile on his face.
“Is it really sandproof?” he asked.
“Really,” said Eduardo, nodding. “Really, really.”
* * *
That summer, my father would occasionally take us orchid hunting. The area around the resort was a dry, hilly wilderness, full of cacti, thorny trees, and Spanish moss. My father drove a rumbling, diesel truck down the caliche roads that had been cut into the vegetation to prepare it for pavement.
One of us would spot a flash of color in the trees, and my father would make a hard stop that would raise a cloud of fine yellow dust all around us. Out we all came. My father would cut a path to the orchid with a long machete and carefully remove it from whatever tree-trunk it had wrapped itself around. Meanwhile, Manny and I explored. Wild cotton grew out there, and we picked and hoarded it, for its strangeness. It was a tough, ugly plant, and the puffs of cotton were full of dark, clinging seeds.
Once, on the way back to our house, my father made a stop in front of a fenced-in compound that was owned by a friend of his. He’d been to dinner there some days before. He parked the car on the shoulder and told Manny and I to stay in it. He walked up to the fence, stood there for a time, watching and waiting, then climbed over with his machete.
My brother and I waited in the car, worried and excited by this change in routine. After many long minutes, our father came back over the fence, tossing down a bundle of leaves before climbing down himself. He walked back to the car, started it, and drove unhurriedly away.
“What did you get?” I asked him.
“A very rare orchid. Sandro didn’t even know what it was,” he said, winking into the rearview mirror. “Don’t tell your mother. And don’t get any ideas.”
But of course, we did get ideas.
* * *
The beach was almost empty, and it was hot. Summer was the slowest time for tourists. A few teenaged sunbathers and small children with parents were scattered on the sand. One older man, blonde and paunchy, was taking a sunfish out into the frothy surf. The beach was a middling Caribbean one: yellow sand, and clear water that turned toothpaste-blue in the middle distance.
We set up our things in the shade of a beach hut. Our chaises were so hot that the vinyl was giving off a melty, plastic smell, like a toy that’s just come out of the box. The nanny slathered all three of us in sunscreen and then released us under our own recognizance.
I folded my clothes, picked up my plastic shovel and bucket, and headed off. In the shade of a coconut tree, close to the water, I dug out a moat for a sand castle. My brother was in charge of going down to the water and scooping wet sand for us. I let Eduardo help me.
The way we planned to take his watch was clumsy. I was supposed to ask to see the watch, and then, when I was handing it back, my brother would run up from behind and tackle Eduardo, knocking the watch out of his hand. While they were untangling themselves, I would kick some sand over the watch, to hide it. Later, we would retrieve it.
The plan went wrong from the first.
“Let me see that watch,” I said to Eduardo.
Eduardo gave me a pitying look and reached his arm out to me, so I could admire the way the hulking rubber thing clung to his tan little wrist.
“Can I try it on?” I asked.
He looked suspicious. “What for?” he asked.
“My father said he was thinking of getting me the same one.”
This was exactly the wrong thing to say. A flash of brow-furrowing anger passed over Eduardo’s features. He masked it with disdain. “It’s very expensive,” he said. “Are you sure it’s the same one?”
“Yes,” I said. How I loathed him. “The same one. Your father was telling my father about it, and I guess he got interested. He likes watches and those Swiss knives, you know? Stuff like that.”
“A Swiss army knife,” said Eduardo, nodding sagely. “I have one. It has forty-three attachments. I’m learning how to whittle, and then I’m going to learn how to carve totem poles, like the Indians.”
“So can I see the watch or not?”
“This isn’t a girl’s watch,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
“I hate girl’s watches.”
Eduardo looked worried, and I held my breath as he wavered with his hand over his wrist.
“Ok,” he said, finally unbuckling it and handing it over. I pretended to examine it carefully, sitting back on my ankles, pressing tiny buttons and generally over-acting. My brother was standing in the waves with the bucket, wild-eyed and wet. And we were off. He ran, and as he came out of the water onto the sand, the force of the wave behind him tripped him and he fell. Poor Manny, with his spindly, foal legs, was always falling.
As he picked himself up, I could see that a massive quantity of blood was streaming down his leg. He’d hit his knee on one of the few rocks on the beach. He looked like something out of Shark Week. I screamed. Manny screamed. Eduardo screamed, so as to not be left out. Nanny came running, at a heavy, bouncing pace. I could hear her breathing raggedly and saying “ohmyGod, ohmyGod, notagain” as she passed.
I remembered that I was holding the watch. I dropped it into the moat we’d been digging, and made sure to topple part of the sandcastle over it as I stood to go see about Manny. My brother cried in long, whooping wails that turned heads up and down the beach.
We hastily packed up our things, Nanny throwing things into an enormous beach tote and yelling at me to get a move on. I kept looking back at the spot where I’d buried the watch, and it gave me such a shock of triumph each time I did. It was an hour or so later, after Manny had been patched up with a bandage and we had settled down back at the house, that Eduardo missed the watch.
“Where did you put my watch?” he asked me over a Lego medieval fortress we were working on. His eyes were big and shiny. I could sense his panic.
“Don’t you remember?” I asked casually, looking back down at the gallows I was making. “I handed it back to you and right after that, Manny got hurt.”
“No,” he said, “you never gave it back.”
“I did,” I said, and then I stood and pulled out my pockets. “I don’t have it, so I must have given it back. Maybe you dropped it.”
“No,” he insisted. His eyes were turning red and watering, and he looked about ready to howl. “You had it.”
“I didn’t. You must’ve lost it. And it was so expensive!”
“You,” he said, his chin trembling. “You.”
“Not me,” I shook my head in what I felt was a conclusive way, and sat back down to keep working. He swatted my Legos out of my hand, and they smashed apart on the tile floor of the living room. This attracted Nanny’s attention away from my brother, and I did my best to appear as wide-eyed and innocent as I could.
“What’s this now?” she asked, irritated.
“She. Took. My. Watch,” Eduardo told her through his teeth. He was practically growling from the effort not to cry.
Nanny gave a scornful sniff, picked up our beach bag and upturned it on the coffee table. Out poured all our toys, a lot of sand, and no watch. I smiled triumphantly. Nanny glared at us both and Eduardo collapsed into miserable little sobs. Even years later, I would remember in breathless detail the way his face crumpled in on itself, so that his child’s forehead became muscular with grief, a vein standing out from it in delicate relief. His breath was labored and tears and snot streamed messily down his red face. I wondered if his tears tasted like mine, and for a moment I wished I could taste them. I was disgusted by the thought, at the same time. I stood there, transfixed.
“Your father will have something to say to you,” Nanny told him. The way she said it made a shiver run down my back. She had a way of making vague pronouncements about parents sound sinister, as if you didn’t know what they were capable of. She turned to me next, and raised an eyebrow. She suspected me, of course; she always thought the worst of people, but she had no proof I’d done anything. “You look very ugly indeed, when you cry,” she told Eduardo.
The next day, Manny and I returned to the beach to retrieve the watch. When we got down to it, however, the watch failed to materialize. Either it was lost under the sand, or someone else had taken it.
“You should’ve hidden it better,” Manny told me. “You said you could find it.”
“Well, it should have worked,” I replied lamely.
Manny shrugged, and a melancholy settled over us as we walked back to the house, I had a feeling of deflation, even a sense of guilt, not because we’d hurt Eduardo, but because something we thought valuable was lost forever.
* * *
After we had taken his watch, we continued to see Eduardo every few weekends. We were nice to him. We pitied him.
Eduardo, on the other hand, was suspicious, and more eager to assert himself than ever. He suspected what we’d done. He never bullied us, since he was outnumbered, but he was always coming up with things for us to do that were not on the up-and-up. We began a never-ending game of dare and double-dare. The more reluctant we were to do something, the more he insisted and taunted. I had a sense that there was a debt between us, no matter how much I tried to reason the feeling away.
In July, something awful happened: some people who lived down the street from us, whose house we biked past all the time, had their toddler drown in the swimming pool. There’s a frenzied, hysterical energy that blossoms in a disaster and spreads outward faster than explanations. We knew something had happened the moment we got up from our naps. Nanny was distracted and there was no snack. Every few minutes she would go stand out on the verandah that overlooked the street. We kept asking her what had happened and finally, since she didn’t have anything to tell us, she gave each of us a sparkler, and lit them for us, so that we would have something to do as we stood out there on the verandah with her. This was such a strange thing that we couldn’t enjoy it. We felt we were being deprived of something even more exciting.
At dinner that night, after Eduardo had gone, our parents explained to us in hushed voices what had happened. They were so serious and sad that my brother started to cry. After dessert, which we were allowed to have two servings of, we went out and sat on the veranda again in the gloaming. We asked for more sparklers and got them. I pretended my sparkler was a fairy, and ran in a large, lazy spiral on the expansive front lawn. I was giddy and blissful from sugar and indulgence. The sparkler was a wand, then a star. My hand glowed in the wan, flickering light. Blue night was falling and our white house was luminous as a moon, and I was queasy with pity about the baby that had died. Lying in the fragrant grass, I imagined him sinking to the bottom of the pool, his eyes open, dark and hard as seeds. My brother lay down with his head close to mine, and I could smell his hair, sweaty and warm. He wanted to know if young children who died went to a special cemetery, like how little children went to a special school, and I said all the dead went to the same place. We were silent for a while, but soon he got up and asked to play tag, and between one game and another, we forgot the dead baby.
* * *
We saw Eduardo again the next weekend, and he hadn’t forgotten about the baby at all. As soon as we were unsupervised, he got a sly, squinty look about him.
“I have,” he said, “the biggest dare ever.”
So far the worst thing we’d ever come up with to dare each other involved a Rottweiler that lived next door. An angry, unneutered animal, it was rumored to have mauled a maid. The dare was that you had to stick your hand in the space between the two front gates and whistle. Whoever let the dog come closest before pulling back won. I hadn’t allowed Manny to participate. I had won, to our great honor. We were like samurais about honor.
“What is it?” I asked Eduardo, without enthusiasm.
“Ok,” he said, working himself up to it. “Ok. Ok. So, you know that kid that drowned?”
“Yeah,” I said noncommittally.
“So, that pool is cursed now.”
I nodded. This was simple reasoning.
“The one who stays in the water the longest wins?”
“You want to get in the pool?” I asked, disgusted and frightened.
“Are you chicken?”
I shook my head automatically, before I’d even thought about it, and so committed myself without meaning to. Eduardo gave a nauseous grin. I don’t think he’d been expecting me to agree. None of us said anything for a while. Then my brother asked in a tremulous voice whether he should go tell Nanny we were going for a walk down the street.
* * *
Our neighborhood had only one entrance, and when Eduardo was over we were allowed to wander about freely so long as we stayed in the neighborhood. It was no problem, then, for us to find ourselves, some twenty minutes and much dawdling later, around the back of the house where the toddler had drowned. The port-cochère was empty, and the house had a boarded-up look about it. Indeed, who would’ve returned so quickly, or ever, to such an awful place? The pool area, new-built of pale stone and glaringly bright in the mid-day sunshine, was quiet. Even the pool filter was off. When the wind blew, the silence was broken by a wind-chime, its little brass bells tolling softly.
The owners had painted the sides and bottom of the pool a dark blue, which gave it an oceanic, depthless quality that I instantly disliked. And with the pool filter off, the water was cloudy. It didn’t sparkle the way our pool did. It looked like exactly the sort of pool someone would drown in.
The three of us stood there, staring, for a good, long while. I suppose we were looking for evidence of what had occurred: some lingering physical taint to mirror the spiritual oppression all three of us felt. Of course there was none, except for the quiet. I couldn’t think how any one of us might go about backing off from the dare. Manny spoke, at last.
“Rock, paper, scissors? Loser goes first?”
“How will we know how long we’ve been in?” I asked.
“We’ll count Mississippis,” said Eduardo.
I lost to my brother with scissors, and then to Eduardo with paper. They immediately took a step back from the edge of the pool. Eduardo looked pleased and Manny looked relieved.
I squatted down, and touched the water with a fingertip. It was tepid, the way our own pool was in the summer. I sighed and drew my hand back. I didn’t want to touch anything with my wet finger, so I held it limply away from me. The key, I reasoned, was not to get my head under the surface. If I could stay dry from the neck up, I would be fine. I stood, thinking I would go around to the shallow corner where the stairs were. I was already down to my bathing suit and sandals. I stretched my hands overhead and pretended to yawn, trying to delay the inevitable. I squatted down again and this time put my whole hand in. I turned my head to say something about how the water wasn’t too bad, when I simultaneously saw Eduardo standing too close to me and felt his hands on me, giving me a good, hard push. I fell in with a heavy, clumsy splash, legs going over my head as I rolled forward. Warm wetness sucked me down to the shadowy bottom. I opened my mouth to cry out and water came in. It went in my nose, down my throat, and I swallowed and swallowed. My feet could not find the bottom. I kicked and kicked. Finally, I rose up toward the light. When I broke the surface of the water, I still could not breathe for coughing. I couldn’t get any air. Manny and Eduardo were backing away from the pool, eyes wide. I flailed, I tried to swim, but it was impossible, it was like I’d forgotten how. I kept swallowing big mouthfuls of water. More and more water. Something big splashed next to me. Then I was being loosely gathered up into wet clothing. This stranger was saying, “You’re alright! You’re alright!”
She propelled me towards the stairs that rose out of the pool. I was too heavy for her to lift me, so when we reached the steps, she pulled me onto her lap and I clung to her tightly. After a little while, she gently pried me loose and helped me out of the pool. My arms and legs were so heavy. My stomach was full of sloshing pool water.
I was so thankful to be out of the pool that it took a minute before I had the presence of mind to be ashamed or frightened, but when it dawned on me that I was sprawled on the warm patio tile with a woman, I was both. She was beautiful; of course, she had the radiance of a savior. She had short black hair, a long nose, interestingly hooded eyes, and a suntan. She was dressed all in black and she didn’t seem to know what to say. When she looked at me, she didn’t look angry, only surprised, as if I’d dropped out of the sky. I suppose it looked like that. Manny and Eduardo had disappeared. I could imagine them running home to get Nanny. There would be a world of trouble; that was for sure.
“God, you scared me,” she said, and made a ragged sound that was somewhere between a sob and a sigh of relief. She got up and let water drip off her for a moment. “Come inside and dry off,” she said, in a soft voice that left no room for argument.
I stood and she led me into the house, which was dim, the heavy curtains all drawn. It was cool and stuffy. I followed her warily through a swinging door, into a brighter kitchen, where she instructed me to sit at a table and left me for a minute. She came back, changed into a loose, faded yellow dress, and handed me a striped yellow towel. By then, I had concluded that this was the drowned boy’s mother. Dried off, she looked tired and gray, in spite of her tan and her dress.
She went to the refrigerator and poured out a glass of milk, and then she went to the pantry and took out a half-full bag of Chips Ahoy cookies that made my mouth water in spite of my nerves. My parents never gave me junk food. Then she put both things in front of me and sat across from me at the table. Between us was an expanse of pale green tabletop. I knew not to take food from strangers, and I hesitated a long moment before my anxiety to please her, so that she would let me go home and not be mad at me, induced me to take a cookie and put the whole thing in my mouth. She laughed: a soft, worn sound, pitched low.
“Who are you?” she asked after I took a drink of milk.
“Elsa,” I said, “I live here.”
She smiled. “Not here. I think I would’ve noticed. Wouldn’t that be nice, though? An infestation of little girls.” Her shoulders and eyebrows rose together and she quirked her mouth.
My mother had said that the little boy had drowned because his mother had fallen asleep when she was supposed to be watching him.
“I live down the street,” I said.
“How do you feel?”
“You’re fine. Of course you are.” she said, and let me eat a few cookies before asking me anything else. She looked off to one side, and swallowed hard, and I was scared for a moment that she would cry. “So how did I find you in my pool?” she asked, at length.
I shrugged, and looked into my milk.
“Did you hear about my little boy?” she asked, her voice wobbling.
I filled my mouth back up with cookie and nodded.
“So. You came here to see.”
I nodded again. Unable to come up with a good lie, I felt a burning need to confess everything all at once.
“And what did you see?” she asked. She didn’t sound angry, just exhausted.
“Nothing,” I said, putting my hand over my full mouth to speak.
“I guess not,” she said. She put her hand under her chin and leaned forward. Her eyes were puffy. “Would you like to see a picture of him?”
I had the sense that this must be a trap, but on the other hand, I did want to. I nodded.
“Come on,” she said. “Bring the cookies.”
I did as she told me, and she led me out of the kitchen, down a long hall, on one side of which were closed doors, and on the other closed shutters that let in only a seam of light. A faint, musty smell was in the air.
At the end of the hall, she opened a door, and walked into a huge room where there was a king-sized bed and much disorder. She flipped on the overhead light. On the bed were folded baby clothes and diapers, and a bright train toy, rounded and jolly. There was an open medicine box, and three blister packs of pills spread out carelessly beside it. The musty smell was stronger here: a clammy skin smell, like at my grandmother’s house.
“Sit anywhere,” she said, waving her hand vaguely.
I sat where I was, at the center of a red rug that, I discovered shortly, appeared to be made entirely of burrs. It was itchy, and yet I sat, uncomplaining, eating cookies, while she brought me an album and opened it in front of me. She sat cross-legged and pointed out pictures of the boy, explaining how old he had been in them and what he’d been doing. The whole time, she sounded like she was giving a presentation, her voice even and calm. The baby was unremarkable, with big, lashy, dark eyes. I tried to think of something nice to tell her, something that might make her feel less miserable, but I couldn’t think what.
She came to the end of the album, and turned back the pages in an aimless way.
“When I was pregnant with him,” she said, “I went up to the US to give birth, by myself. We wanted him to be an American, but my husband couldn’t stay up there for as long as I needed, so I stayed with a great aunt of his, in New York City. It was two months that I was with her. She was a nice, old lady, but we didn’t have much to say to each other. I must often have been lonely— my husband tells me it was all I talked about—but I only remember being excited, and anxious. I remember walking down those big avenues, feeling like the whole city was anticipating me. It was spring in the city, and buds were coming out on the trees and I felt like I was in bloom too.”
I imagined her then as a flower, petals unfurling ponderously to reveal a dark center, lolling and vulnerable in the breeze.
“One day,” she continued, “I was standing in line for a movie, and this older man asked me if I knew what I was having. I said it was a boy, and he asked if I had other boys. I lied and said yes. I said that I had a little boy named Andres, who was almost four. I was actually imagining the baby as he might be in the future. Andres was the name I’d picked out for him. I made up all kinds of details. That he hated eggs, for example. I can’t stand them, I said. He got that from me.
“Later that day, I decided the whole performance I’d put on was terrible luck. I felt like I’d taken something that wasn’t mine, and now what was mine was at risk. It was ridiculous, but all the way up to the birth, part of me was sure there’d be some complication. But there wasn’t. As he got older though, he became difficult. He slept badly, and he used to keep us both up all night. I would get so angry with him, sometimes.”
She trailed off, and we sat in silence a while. It upset and outraged me to imagine the woman waking up from her nap the day the boy had drowned: that stolen bit of time between when the drowning had occurred and when she had realized it, when all those dreams she’d had were still alive inside her even while the boy lay dead in the pool. It was like someone was playing a trick on her.
All this time that she’d been showing me pictures, I’d been working away at the cookies, my feelings increasing my appetite, and now I had come to the end of the bag.
“My God,” she said, “have you eaten all the cookies?”
I nodded, not knowing whether to be ashamed of myself.
“You’ll be wanting some more milk,” she said, frowning. In fact, I did.
She went off, and I sat there, encircled by a blast area of crumbs. While I waited, I pulled the album towards me and leafed through it. It was the kind with hard, sticky cardboard pages with thin sheets of plastic laid over. If you wanted to put a picture in or take it out, you peeled back the plastic sheet and then pulled the picture away from the sticky cardboard.
The first picture in the album must have been the first picture the woman and the baby ever took together: she was reclining, newborn curled up on her chest. I lifted away the protective plastic and peeled it away from the page. The whole experience of meeting the woman was so much like a dream that I felt I must take something with me so later I’d be able to remember it. I always forgot my dreams. I needed proof, a souvenir.
I folded the picture and put it down the back of my swimsuit, where it poked uncomfortably at my skin.
* * *
I closed the album and sat to wait for the woman. I waited for such a long time that my leg fell asleep. I stood and walked in little circles around the room. I grew concerned, then, that the woman had been away for so long, and I went to the door. The long hall was empty and quiet. I stepped hesitantly into it. I listened for her steps, returning, but there was nothing at all to make me believe I wasn’t alone in the house. Where could she have gone?
I came to the third door in the hallway and found it was open to a dim, small room. Sitting on a couch, head in her hands, was the woman. Her hair curtained off her face. The room was bare, except for a crib, and two or three little things on the floor. Some books, a pacifier.
A buzzer sounded faintly, as if at a great distance. The woman looked up with a gasp.
“That must be for you,” she said after a long moment during which she looked as though she were struggling to focus on me. She got up and motioned for me to come along. The buzzer sounded again.
It was for me. Nanny put on her smilingest face to retrieve me. Walking back home, her hand manacled around my wrist, she gave me the expected scolding.
Back home, Eduardo and Manny pestered me for details about what had happened inside the house. Since Eduardo had pushed me into the pool and Manny had left me there, I obstinately refused to discuss it. They followed me into the room I shared with Manny, but I locked myself in the bathroom and ran the shower to drown out their voices. I retrieved the photo and looked at it. I could remember all the details of the afternoon. I experienced the memory even more clearly than I had the reality. The images in my mind pulsed with steady, warm life; each thing (the train toy on the bed, even) had a secret, inner beat. The woman, too, was clear, very sad, and I felt closer to her the longer I looked at the picture. I knew I should not have taken it; I sensed there was something dangerous about it, but I thought it was the danger of Nanny or my parents finding out I’d taken it.
When I came out of the bathroom, Manny and Eduardo were gone. I put the picture in the drawer of my night table and went to find them.
I found only Manny, playing by himself next to our bin of Legos, building a tall, narrow tower.
“Why don’t you ever use all one color?” I asked.
“Are you mad at me?”
He shrugged again, though this time the gesture was dramatic, so I knew he was. It was because I wouldn’t tell him anything about being inside the house with the woman.
“Where’s Eduardo? Don’t shrug.”
“He’s hiding in our closet.”
“What?” I asked.
“He’s in our room. He said he can always tell when you’re up to something. I told him I wasn’t going to spy on you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Again, he shrugged; this time the motion was small, ashamed, but defiant.
I ran back to my room, opening the door so violently it slammed against the adjoining wall. Eduardo stood by my open nightstand, holding the picture. I froze. He stared at me, his expression one of calculation. His eyes were sleepy and sated, his mouth open and his lips shining like he’d licked them. I could see from the way he looked at me that my face was giving him what he craved: I looked stricken.
I suppressed an urge to reach out and snatch the picture out of his hand, which was a mistake. With a quick movement, he ripped it in two, and then two again. My mouth dropped open. Then, with great contempt, he dropped the four pieces. They fluttered like pale moths as the fell. Then he left, knowing there was nothing I could do, no one I could rat him out to.
I picked up the four pieces. I could tape the picture back together, but I could never return it like this. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought I wanted to return it. But I did.
I looked at the baby’s face, his dark, unfocused eyes. He was drowned, gone forever. I imagined my brother, and then Eduardo, and then myself floating face down in pool water, our hands stretched out over our heads, our faces turned away from an enormous, light blue sky, deaf to the tinkling of bells in a summer breeze. Under my guilt at about the picture, I found a creeping grief, like a fat worm under a garden rock. It was a grief for all of us, even for Eduardo. Eduardo would be dead one day, and so would my brother, and Nanny, and me. The sad woman would pack her things and return to her life. Then she, too, would someday die. Someday I would be the one padding quietly through the rooms of a dark house, rounding up what remained. The knowing of it burrowed itself deep into me.
* * *
A few weeks later the woman’s house was put up for sale. I would never see her after that. I would often think of how it might have been, if I had returned the picture. I would have walked down to her house and she would have opened the door a long time after I buzzed, still in her yellow dress.
“You again,” she would have said, and somewhere deep in her voice would have been a smile. She would not have noticed the picture was missing. I would have given it to her and mumbled my apology. She would have forgiven me, and let me go. She would have understood.
It was three weeks before I was allowed to go down to the beach with Manny and Eduardo again. Eduardo dared me to race him out to where the sea broke violently over rocks as sharp and lined up as teeth in a mouth, a solid quarter mile, but I laughed at him and pretended I thought the whole thing was stupid. Next, Manny dared Eduardo to get buried in the sand, and Eduardo accepted. They went down to the water to dig an enormous hole. I stayed close by Nanny who asked if I was feeling all right.
“Fine,” I said.
I took my shovel from the beach tote, and ambled towards Eduardo and Manny, not wanting to join them. My eye was caught by the coconut tree under which I’d lost Eduardo’s watch. I walked over to it and squatted down on the damp, cool sand, running my hand over it. It was packed, and the sand clung to my hand, all different colors when you looked closely. I sunk my shovel in. I half expected to scoop the watch up in a single go, just like that. I did it again, and again. It felt good to dig, to look. I must surely find the watch if I looked long enough. If I could recover it, something important would be righted, and I would be back where I’d been before I’d ever thought of taking it.
When I looked up, it seemed a long time had passed without my noticing it. Eduardo and Manny had disappeared. I looked up and down the beach, and then to Nanny, who was placidly reading on her chaise. My breath caught in my throat. I thought they must be swimming out to the breakers. Manny could never make it so far. I stood and scanned the water for their heads and arms, bobbing. Nothing. Panic rose as time ebbed away, and I held my breath. Waves broke and broke over those distant and glistening black rocks.
Suddenly, Manny’s head popped up out of the sand. He was crouching in the hole he’d dug. I let my breath out all at once. I was so relieved, I laughed, but the panic of the moment before didn’t entirely leave me so much as recede. It was still there, lurking. I knelt back down on the sand, and bent to dig.
Ana Crouch Ureña’s writing has appeared in the Black Warrior Review, Day One, Little Fiction, and The Normal School (online). She is originally from the Dominican Republic, and now lives in Charlotte, NC. She has totally healthy non-obsessive relationships with her dog, Arthur Hastings, and with Twitter (@ana_crouch).